Whither Women Deacons? Pope Francis Allows Further Debate

Should women be ordained to the permanent diaconate? Delegates at the Pan-Amazon synod repeatedly returned to that question.

Pope Francis accepts a gift at the Mass for the closing of the Amazon synod Oct. 27.
Pope Francis accepts a gift at the Mass for the closing of the Amazon synod Oct. 27. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Should women be ordained to the permanent diaconate?

Delegates at the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region repeatedly returned to that question, communicating a desire among many synod participants for a major change in the Catholic Church’s long tradition of reserving the sacrament of holy orders for men alone. 

And when the synod issued its final report, the proposition on this matter called for concrete consideration of the possibility.

“In the many consultations carried out in the Amazon, the fundamental role of religious and lay women in the Church of the Amazon and its communities was recognized and emphasized, given the multiple services they provide,” read Paragraph 103 of the final report. “In a large number of these consultations, the permanent diaconate for women was requested.”

The synod document noted that “in 2016, Pope Francis had created a ‘Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women’” and that this body “arrived at a partial result based on what the reality of the diaconate of women was like in the early centuries of the Church and its implications for today.”

“We would therefore like to share our experiences and reflections with the commission and await its results.”

During an Oct. 26 vote, this brief paragraph was approved by 137 synod fathers and opposed by 30.

Speaking shortly after the voting on the synod document, Pope Francis himself addressed the report’s language on women, the diaconate, and a proposed ministry of “women community leaders,” designed to help address local Church needs.

On the one hand, he suggested, the document fell short of explaining women’s full role in the Church, particularly “in the transmission of faith, in the preservation of culture. I would just like to underline this: that we have not yet realized what women mean in the Church,” he said. Rather, “we focus on the functional aspect, which is important,” but is not everything.

Still, even though he had recently acknowledged that the deaconesses described by St. Paul in the New Testament were not equivalent to the modern sacramental understanding of the diaconate, he pledged to “reconvene the [2016] commission” he had established to review the historic record on women deaconesses, perhaps “with new members” added to the commission.

While some media reports interpreted the Holy Father’s willingness to allow further exploration of the subject of women deacons as a hint that they might be approved, past studies have not yielded evidence of ordained women deacons in the early Church. And canon lawyers and theologians contacted by the Register underscored this lack of historical evidence that the Church had ever ordained women deacons or deaconesses to the sacrament of holy orders.


Historical Role of Deaconess

“The Church’s study of a female diaconate is nothing new and has been investigated since the 17th century,” Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, a canon lawyer, told the Register, as he checked off formal studies of this issue over the past two decades.

“In 2002, the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a document which gave a thorough historical context of the role of the deaconess in the ancient Church and overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early Church didn’t have a liturgical or sacramental function.”

“While male deacons were ordained to the sacramental ministry of the altar, the deaconess was entrusted with the ministry of charity among the women of the congregation as well as to female religious communities,” he said. “It seems as if the female diaconate was distinct and of its own category, not considered part of the sacrament of holy orders.”

Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, echoed this assessment of the historical record. The new commission is “not going to be able to prove that deaconesses were ordained in the early Church. And if it is not possible to prove this, we have to stick with the long-standing tradition that women cannot be sacramentally ordained to the diaconate,” Father Weinandy told the Register. “Only the apostles were ordained, and from that apostolic time to the present only men have been sacramentally ordained.”

That teaching, he noted, was affirmed by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which stated that priestly ordination was “reserved for men alone.”

“Pope John Paul declared that women cannot be ordained priests, and that would also mean that they cannot be ordained to the diaconate, because the sacrament of holy orders is of a threefold nature,” said Father Weinandy, referring to the three degrees of the sacrament — bishop, priest and deacon.

Further, “if a Catholic bishop would attempt to ordain sacramentally a woman to the diaconate, it would not be a valid sacrament because the sacramental signs would not effect what they symbolize,” he added.  “The reason that the signs would not effect what they symbolize is that the proper sacramental matter would not be present, that is, a male.” 


Furthering Diaconate Debate

E. Christian Brugger, a professor of moral theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, agreed that the weight of Tradition and Church history argued against the introduction of women deacons. 

“In the ordained priesthood, the configuring that takes place is particular to men — Christ’s embodied maleness is relevant to who can and cannot receive priestly orders,” said Brugger. Still, he expressed concern about Pope Francis’ pledge to review the matter again.

“[C]ommending the … issue for further study allows it to stay alive until a more opportune moment arises,” Brugger suggested.

Asked to comment on the significance of the Pope’s decision, Phyllis Zagano, a member of Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, declined to be interviewed. Zagano is a supporter of the claim that the early Church did ordain women deacons.

“Many of the working groups of the Catholic Church’s just-ended Synod for the Pan-Amazon in Rome requested the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate, a long-abandoned tradition that could well address the Amazonian church’s needs,” read a statement from Zagano provided to the Register. “I look forward to continuing my work.”

Meanwhile, the public endorsement of women deacons by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, one of three U.S. delegates to the Pan-Amazonian Synod, lent some credence to Brugger’s sense of alarm. “The … majority of bishops [at the Amazon synod] were in favor of admitting women to the permanent diaconate,” Bishop McElroy told Catholic News Service. “My hope would be that that they find a way, a pathway, to make that a reality. And I think there is a good possibility that’s the direction it’s going to head into,” he added, citing the Pope’s comments immediately after the final vote as an indication that “there’s a good chance some positive action” will take place.

Another high-profile synodal endorsement of ordained women deacons came from Bishop Evaristo Pascoal Spengler of Marajó, Brazil, who asserted at an Oct. 25 press conference that Pope Benedict’s XVI’s 2009 revisions of canon law had paved the way for this move.

Benedict’s 2009 motu proprio, Omnium in Mentem, revised Canons 1008 and 1009 of the Code of Canon Law, updating Church norms to reflect the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the nature of the diaconate.

But the day after Bishop Spengler’s comments, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the prefect of the Pontifical Household and the pope emeritus’ longtime personal secretary, dismissed the Brazilian bishop’s claim as “totally absurd and wrong,” in an interview with the Register.

Bishop Paprocki, who like Archbishop Gänswein is a canon lawyer, said he agreed with the archbishop’s judgment. “Pope Benedict’s revisions were done to help better understand the differences of ministry for deacons and priests,” said Bishop Paprocki, “and nothing was said about women deacons.”


Concern Over Potential Schism

Canonists contacted by the Register insisted that the question of ordaining women deacons “was not so much a matter of Church law as ecclesiology,” rooted in the nature and structure of the Church. And, they said, on these ecclesiological grounds it appears clear that ordaining women deacons is precluded.

“My opinion is there is no wiggle room on this,” Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a professor of canon law at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told the Register.

And what could happen if this practice is changed, nonetheless?

“It will create a schism, but I don’t think it will be changed,” he said.“If you look at the final document, it did not request a change. It just said the subject was raised in the conversations before the synod,” he continued. “There is no recommendation for ordaining women to the diaconate.”

Rather, the synod’s final document requested the opportunity to share “experiences and reflections with the [Study] Commission [on the Diaconate of Women] and await its results.” That said, Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar for canonical services at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, acknowledged that the decision to reconstitute the Vatican commission on women deacons had raised fears that a change could come. When this question has already been taken up repeatedly, said Father Fox, “there is a sense that we have not gotten the results we want, so we will study it again.”

But Margaret McCarthy, associate professor for theologial anthropology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, said it was also important to go beyond the headlines and address the flawed thinking behind the intense promotion of women deacons and related ministries that gave them a formal role as Church leaders.

It’s the worst sort of “clericalism for a layperson, male or female, only to be important in the Church if they wear a collar,” said McCarthy.

“Being the Church in the world is being in the Church,” she said, citing the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on the universal call for holiness and the laity’s responsibility to bring “Christ to the world,” whether in the care and support of their families, in work, education, or culture.

Francis appeared to make the same point, when he suggested that the final document had failed to consider women’s outsized role in the “transmission of faith, in the preservation of culture.”

However, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, who has studied the issue of permanent deacons, had a different take on the synod’s proposal, suggesting it might be aiming instead toward a non-sacramental ministry for women in the Amazon basin.

The synod delegates were responding to the vital role played by “women serving in outlying communities,” including their service as parish administrators, he said. “The Holy Father has also asked about the possibility of a non-sacramental role for the diaconate, and I wonder if that is what is being considered,” said Bishop McKnight.

“There may be other new forms or offices open to women in the Church that do not necessarily entail the sacrament of holy orders.

“If that is in accord with the mind of Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are obliged to do it,” he concluded — but only after “answers are given to doctrinal questions that have yet to be resolved.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

CNA and Rome correspondent Edward Pentin contributed to this report.